Rena disaster: How Did It Come To This?

General Secretary of the Maritime Union of New Zealand, Joe Fleetwood, has written the following opinion piece in the Dominion Post:

The grounding of the Rena has created a storm of outrage and concern.

The disaster has been widely reported around the world. It continues to unfold as the vessel disintegrates on the Astrolabe Reef.

Many New Zealanders are confused as to who is responsible. They are confused as to how such an event could have happened. They are confused, concerned and angry about the outcomes and the response of the Government and authorities.

The issue of responsibility is important. As important as the salvage efforts are, people have a right to know why we are in this mess in the first place.

The Government and the authorities are keen to show they are focused on fixing the problem.

However, the time to fix the problem was before it happened. Now, at best, we are getting a very rough and costly patch-up job.

One issue that has suddenly gained the media spotlight is flag of convenience shipping.

Many people are shocked when they have grasped how this system operates on the New Zealand coast.

The Rena is flagged in Liberia, like thousands of other flag of convenience vessels.

Liberia, a small, war-torn and impoverished nation in West Africa, makes a huge chunk of its foreign earnings from its flag of convenience registry.

In many of these flag of convenience states, there are few laws and regulations, let alone any enforcement of them.

Maritime workers in New Zealand ports have seen many substandard flag of convenience ships over the years, and many serious incidents on these vessels.

This is deregulation operating in a globalised free market economy, with no oversight, no responsibility and no morality.

In 2004 as part of a national campaign, the Maritime Union stated, "Flag of Convenience ships are notorious for their exploitation of crews and safety risks. They endanger our environment and port security, and are a threat to the future of the New Zealand maritime industry."

The Maritime Union has called for the repeal of Section 198 of the Maritime Transport Act and the introduction of the cabotage system, where New Zealand ships would be given priority to carry cargo between New Zealand ports.

Since the previous National Government introduced the so-called "open coast" policy in the 1990s, flag of convenience vessels have come to dominate New Zealand coastal shipping.

New Zealand shipping, operating under New Zealand standards, paying New Zealand taxes and employing New Zealand crews, has been decimated and struggles to survive.

There are beneficiaries from this situation. It is a cheap way of doing things. But as we all know, doing things on the cheap has a funny way of ending up being more expensive in the long run.

At the same time as we are witnessing the Rena disaster, the Government is holding an inquiry into the bad practices aboard foreign charter vessels in the New Zealand fishing industry.

These issues are all related. They come back to a failure to control the worst aspects of the global maritime industry from being established here.

The series of events leading up to the Rena grounding is unclear.

However, the Maritime Union is determined that blame should not be conveniently pinned on one or two ship's officers.

There needs to be an inquiry into the systemic problems in the maritime industry.

Were the crew massively incompetent? If so, why could they be in control of a vessel like this on the New Zealand coast?

Were the crew fatigued after working round the clock to fit in with the schedules of the charterers MSC? If so, should the company be held responsible, along with the authorities who permitted this situation?

Was the vessel faulty? Were its navigational standards sufficient? It had been picked up for numerous issues both in mainland China and Australia before its arrival in New Zealand.

Was a full inspection by Maritime New Zealand taken of the vessel, given these numerous documented failings? If not, why not?

The incidents on flag of convenience vessels, including foreign charter vessels operating in the New Zealand fishing industry, makes for a long and grim list.

Sinkings, drownings, asphyxiations, severe injuries, physical attacks, underpayment, pollution and overfishing, abuse and exploitation are all documented throughout the maritime industry.

For years the problem has been out of sight and out of mind.

There were no votes to be gained from impoverished foreign crews. Complacent politicians have come and gone, and the profits kept flowing to the shipping corporations.

Now we are all reaping a bitter harvest from those irresponsible decisions.

The only good thing that can come of Rena is that New Zealanders now understand we can no longer allow the current situation to continue.

The maritime industry and flag of convenience shipping must be regulated and controlled to prevent a repeat.

It is a great shame that it has taken an event like the Rena to show us why.